Zen At Work: A Zen Teacher’s 30-Year Journey in Corporate America
Les Kaye 
Crown Publishers: New York, 1996 
169 pp., $14.00 (paper) 

Les Kaye was an engineer working at IBM in California in the early 1960’s when he first discovered Zen. It was a time when the gulf between life at a large American corporation and the life of the spirit seemed vast and irreconcilable. In those days many people in America were coming to new forms of spiritual practice, some of them leaving their jobs to do so, but few were, like Kaye, committed to exploring Zen while raising a family and pursuing an active professional career.

Over the course of the next three decades, Kaye studied with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, became a monk, went on retreats at Tassajara, received dharma transmissions in Japan, and became the abbot of Kannon Do, a Zen meditation center in California. During the same time he got his MBA, managed teams of engineers, and worked his way up the ladder at IBM. He had few role models for how to live these two lives harmoniously: “I didn’t know what it meant to be a Zen monk in modern America … .I understood only that I didn’t know what it meant to be a Zen monk in modern America … .I understood only that I wanted to be a monk while continuing to work and take care of my family, to deVelop an integrated, balanced life, expressing spiritual practice in the complexity of the everyday world. Was it possible to have the true spirit of a Zen monk while living a suburban, corporate life?”

In Zen at Work, Kaye makes it clear that the two parts of his life complemented each other in richly satisfying ways. He relates stories from his parallel careers in Zen and at IBM in a chatty, anecdotal manner, such as you might imagine him using with a colleague at work. He also sets out a distillation of his understanding of Zen in a sparer, less personal style, one he might use addressing his students at Kannon Do.

IBM clearly suited Kaye’s enterprise. As he says, “The high tech corporate workplace became my ‘monastery.'” Seen from the perspective of the ’90s, IBM really was something of a monastery in those days. Sheltered by its dominant market share from many of the painful choices of competition, its adepts worked to bring mainframe computing to the world. IBM’s collegial community of engineers, its policy of tacit lifetime employment, and generous leaves of absence gave Kaye stimulation and security, and allowed him to give much of his energy to his Zen practice. In return, Zen gave Kaye tools for understanding himself and corporate life. Big Mind, Being in the World and the Inherent Interconnectedness of All Things: Kaye used these principles to become a more effective manager.

Kaye’s experiences are encouraging and thought-provoking. He describes a hopeful and authentic path, especially valuable for someone just starting a career. Yet the book raises questions it does not answer.

Is there a difference between spiritual growth and learning to be more effective? The past few decades have seen a surge in the description and practice of personal improvement, some of it codified in corporate language as Total Quality Management. Yet TQM is not spiritual practice. Becoming a more effective human being does not necessarily require spiritual practice or lead to spiritual growth. Or does it? Is there something inherently spiritual about self-improvement? Kaye leaves this interesting question unlimned.

Kaye’s discussion of relationships deals mostly with not being caught by anger and frustration. This is excellent advice, but not if it leads to suppression of these emotions. Moreover, good managers need their emotions, positive and negative. They can be sensitive measures for assaying value and delineating healthy boundaries, and are essential for their power to motivate and persuade.

Kaye also might have made more of the apparent conflict between a corporation’s need for sales and profit, and the “Bodhisattva [who] does not feel the need to pursue anything:’ Here is one of the great cruxes of the work/spirit dilemma, but Kaye simply says that spiritual practice does not deny the rough and tumble aspects of the real world, “it just does not overemphasize them.” There is an opportunity here for a discussion of more substance.

Fundamentally, Kaye is saying that mindfulness is useful, whether you are sitting on a cushion or working at your job. The problem is that by now this is not news. While his admonitions are sound, they seem tame and untested in a decade where competition is brutal and global, layoffs a tacit corporate probability, and the energy for contemplation hard-won. He describes his parallel worlds and their interface beautifully, but I wish he could have connected them more meaningfully. It’s not Kaye’s fault that he worked in a very supportive environment. I just wonder what sort of book he might have written if he had been laid off from IBM, God forbid, and had supported his family by starting a business of selling used cars.

For all the book’s mildness, it has some beautiful moments and images that make the read worthwhile. For example: “In Zen practice we use incense a great deal. … To offer incense is to offer our lives-to stand upright, to give light, to purify, and to encourage …. [We] have no regrets as our lives get shorter. We just do our best to burn as cleanly as we can.”

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